Tracing the path of Neil Young's 'Helpless'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In the down moments of my day, I often pick my guitar up off the stand, sit in a chair and start to absentmindedly pick and strum. It’s calming, it keeps my hands from growing restless and it’s a method for filling the blank spaces with a modicum of creativity.
I have a stable of songs I like to exhume from the guitar. I’ll start out with Pete Townshend’s “Drowned” or the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” perhaps moving onto Pearl Jam’s “Immortality” before careening off into endless riffing. But in between, I often lapse back to the familiar D, A and G chords, filling the air before trying a new song.
Those chords, endlessly repeated, are the foundation of Neil Young’s “Helpless,” one of the first songs I learned on guitar and a song that I’ve carried with me since high school.
As a fan, I love most of Young’s work and at least appreciate the rest, but I typically wind my way back to loud, rhythmic stomp of Crazy Horse — “Down By the River,” “Love to Burn,” “Danger Bird,” “Slip Away,” and so on. That’s not to say I’m an isolationist when it comes to his music. He has a tremendous number of solo moments, and few have stuck with me with the power of “Helpless.”
I saw Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young perform the tune at my first concert in 2000. It was on the first two Young CDs I bought (Decade and Unplugged). Young’s performance of “Helpless” with the Band is one of the enduring images from The Last Waltz. It’s one of the few pure moments on CSNY’s Déjà Vu, an album otherwise drenched in overdubs and excess.
Cutting through all else, the song is a simple call back to a childhood home, the inevitable stage for all the confusion and turmoil that comes with maturity. It’s simple structure — the song never breaks from that D-A-G path — runs in contrast to the weight of growing up, growing old and moving out.
Of course, “Helpless” was born with a hint of mystery. As Young explains in Jimmy McDonnough’s biography Shakey, the greatest version of the song was with the original Crazy Horse lineup, and one not committed to tape:
“We were doing it live, everybody playing and singing at once, and we did about an eight- or nine-minute version of it … with a long instrumental in the middle,” Young told writer Jean-Charles Costa. “And the engineer didn’t press the button down. It was much more free than anything I’ve done onstage.”
There exists a mystical energy to the song. Three chords slowly churn under the ode to youth in a cold hometown. In every version of the song I’ve heard, including covers, the mellow pace defines the song, the better versions using as few extra instruments as possible. Indeed, the best version I’ve heard finds Young in the Bottom Line cafe in New York City, 1974, where the song occupies a space in the set as the only recognizable number for the crowd. Amid darker, reserved contemplations that would later grace On The Beach, “Helpless” was the only song from his past that fit.
Despite the direction that his career has taken, “Helpless” has continued to fit in Young’s setlists. In between stints with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Crazy Horse tours and solo outings, no matter the material or setting, “Helpless” seems to find its own nook in Young’s cannon.
It speaks to the timelessness of that song that it continues to live on and thrive. The beauty is borne out when, no matter the band, place or context, the song is a standout.
In the few bands I’ve been lucky enough to play with, “Helpless” has been a staple. I’ve warbled along in my untrained voice, blown into the harmonica and plunked out the notes on the bass. These days, strumming the three chords and singing the words is something of a private meditation.
I didn’t grow up in northern Ontario, I grew up in southern Massachusetts. The birds flew, the moon loomed and I spent most of my youth feeling as lost in the shadows as Young might have in his day. It’s a mixed bag of emotions; feelings of happiness, simplicity and lost opportunities. All my changes were there. Even on my strongest days, that song still has enough power to leave me weak.
Jan. 24, 2012
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com